Maui Carnage: Unraveling the Hawaii Fire


Hawaii still counts its dead after several meteoric fires, one of which reduced a historic town on the island of Maui to ashes and threatens to become the worst natural disaster in the recent history of the American archipelago.

Here’s what we know about the fire that took many residents by surprise.

– How did the fires start? –

Much of the Hawaiian archipelago was on fire red alert when multiple fires started on Tuesday, but their cause is still unknown.

Authorities “have not been able to determine what started the fires,” said Major General Kenneth Hara, the US military commander in Hawaii, on Wednesday evening. An investigation has been opened.

The first flames around the historic town of Lahaina, which was almost completely destroyed, appeared at dawn on Tuesday.

A “brush fire” was reported “at 6:37 a.m.,” according to Maui County. It was initially declared “100% under control shortly after 9 a.m.”, but in the afternoon a resumption of fire was announced.

Other fires were then in progress elsewhere on Maui and the flames progressed very quickly. The population of Lahaina was taken by surprise: a hundred people threw themselves into the sea to escape the blaze, according to the coast guard.

– Poor crisis management? –

The Lahaina fire killed at least 80 people, making it one of the worst natural disasters experienced by the Hawaiian archipelago since the 1960s. And the toll is likely to rise.

Residents are still stunned by the speed of the disaster.

“We saw the smoke from afar. By the time we got home, in one or two minutes, the black smoke was seeping into the house,” Saraí Cruz told AFP. “We had to hurry, we took what we could, the important things. We took the car, we saw the flames at the neighbors, their house was already burning.

The former capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii now looks like a field of charred ruins: Lahaina is “80%” destroyed, according to the governor of the archipelago, Josh Green.

Questions are beginning to emerge about the management of the authorities. The sirens supposed to sound in the event of a fire were not activated, confirmed to CNN a spokesperson for the agency responsible for crisis management in Hawaii.

– How to explain the speed of fire? –

The flames were fed by a cocktail of devastating conditions.

They were fanned by strong winds, which exceeded 100 km / h, according to the US Weather Services (NWS). They were notably fed by Dora, a category 4 hurricane, blowing several hundred kilometers to the south in the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Maui’s topography, an island that has two volcanoes and several mountains at its center, with a fairly flat coastline, also played a role.

The gusts from the ocean turned into “downdraft winds” that “were pushed up the slopes of the island towards the city,” says Thomas Smith, professor of environmental geography at the London School of Economics.

These downdraft winds are typically “dry and hot,” reducing vegetation moisture and making fires “more extreme.”

The region itself was ready to go up in flames, for two reasons.

First because of a less rainy year than usual. The western part of Maui, where Lahaina is located, is experiencing “severe” to “moderate” drought, according to the US Drought Monitor.

Then, because of the decline of agriculture on the island since the 90s, according to Clay Trauernicht, a fire specialist at the University of Hawaii.

The once manicured fields, which could have slowed the fire, have been replaced by “vast expanses of non-local, abandoned plants,” he tweeted.

– Has climate change weighed? –

While it is always difficult to attribute a particular event to climate change, scientists regularly point out that global warming increases the frequency of extreme events.

The world has just had its hottest July on record.

“Climate change is causing the atmosphere to warm up everywhere, (…) so that the same fire that would have been moderate a few decades ago will be more intense today”, summarizes Yadvinder Malhi, professor of ecosystem science at Oxford University.

This article is originally published on


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